Gospel: Luke 2:15-21
Eight days after his birth, Jesus is circumcised according to Jewish law and given the name announced by the angel before his conception.
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Our daughter is named for two grandmothers. Brian’s grandmother Vivian, who was formative in his upbringing, and my grandmother, Hilda Mae. Having never met his grandmother, and knowing no other Vivians, I knew I liked the name, but when our daughter was born there was no question – I took one look at her and she stared back at me, sizing me up, and I thought, this one looks like a Vivian Mae. I wonder if Mary had similar thoughts, looking down at Jesus in the manger. Does he look like a Jesus?
Well, unless the Angel Gabriel spoke in Latin to the Virgin Mother, he told her to name him “Yeshua,” or “Joshua.” The name Joshua should immediately make you recall the great patriarch, who picked up Moses’ mantle. It was Joshua who finished Moses’ job. It was Joshua who finished the journey of the Exodus. It was Joshua who finally led the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.
The way that the Bible gets from Yeshua to Jesus is a complicated mix of transliteration and translation from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, subbing letters where they are needed for whatever new alphabet you need to use. Whatever alphabet you use, the name the baby was given means God saves. Jesus’ birth, life, and death point to God’s character, God saves. Jesus is God’s whole being incarnate – with flesh. Jesus is God with a face and a name. Jesus is the face and name of God. No longer just the I am who I am, and I will be who I will be – that was the name that Moses was given. God assumes the name of action through salvation.
Each of these readings for this day shows something about the character of God, and how God thinks of us. Lowly creature though we are, seemingly bent on selfishness and self-destruction – God’s intention is to save. God wants to bless and keep safe. God will make his face shine on us, show us grace and give us peace. We have been made by God, in his image, a little less than divine – and given a role to play in the management of this world. God is mindful of us – mere mortals – because we are his children. We are a part of the family of God, given a name in our baptism, which both looks like us and is something we can grow into. The name and identity we are given is child of God.
All throughout scripture – name and identity are important – both tied to family and community – as well as vocation and purpose. In the book of Genesis – God names Adam, and then has him give names to all creatures. In Exodus, Moses learns God’s name. But names can also change – to reflect new things that God is doing with them and for them. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel, the one who struggles with God. In the New Testament, and Simon becomes Peter, the Rock upon which the Church is built, and Saul becomes Paul.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes that the Holy Name of Jesus is the “name above all names.” “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”.
Pastor Anna Tew, reflects in her blog from 2016 and writes, “When I was a child growing up in the rural South, the name of Jesus was often used almost like an incantation. Jesus had the mightiest name, the most powerful name, the strongest name. Given this human tendency to emphasize power, Jesus should have been born and named as a prince in a royal ceremony. If our faith is meant to be the dominant, powerful one, our God should have been a high-born, noble-born child. But we find Jesus today in the Gospel passage born in a stable, with no one but his parents and some low-born shepherds to celebrate and spread news of his birth. He’s born poor to young parents, named on the eighth day like every other Jewish boy, and becomes a refugee in Egypt at a young age. But we are also told that he is named by an angel before he is conceived. We are also told that angels announce his birth to the shepherds. This ordinary poor boy is also holy — our God has become flesh and lived among us, not as a king, but as a carpenter’s son. From those beginnings, Jesus, whose holy name simply means “to save,” lives as God-made-flesh who is not so much interested in dominance as in making the ordinary holy.”
In our baptism, we are not given worldly power – dominance – or glory. But we are made holy, identified as God’s children, for God’s delight, bearers and receivers of divine attention and love. And despite our desire for self-improvement on New Year’s Day, the new year begins with the blessing. A benediction. A promise that originates long before us, during a wilderness journey – God puts his name on his people.
In Jesus, God Comes to us, again and again. Target and Walmart have already moved on to Valentine’s Day. But the joy of Christmas is here for us to ponder still. The love of God has come to dwell among us.